Bill would open door to Canadian imports

Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2005

Government officials, banking on millions in possible savings, took steps this week to allow county employees to buy cheaper medications from Canada.

On Tuesday, the County Council introduced legislation that would direct the county’s Department of Human Resources to offer a prescription drug benefit that would be supplied by ‘‘domestic or foreign pharmacy benefit managers.”

Although no nation was named in the bill, the county already has ironed out a contract with Canusa, a pharmacy in Windsor, Ont.

The council’s move could put Montgomery County at odds with the Food and Drug Administration, headquartered only a few miles from the Council Office Building, which has said such programs violate the law.

About a dozen city and state governments have crafted similar programs. The federal government has not taken action.

‘‘The FDA does not seem to have the courage of its own convictions,” said Councilman Howard A. Denis (R-Dist. 1) of Chevy Chase.

Because of the potential for legal trouble, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) on Monday announced he was asking the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for a waiver from the federal ban on importation.

A year ago, Duncan asked Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to seek the same waiver. The request was ignored.

On Monday, Duncan also asked Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D) to use ‘‘judicial means” to ensure that the request is treated fairly and expeditiously.

The legal issue sparked some debate during Tuesday’s council session.

Councilman Michael L. Subin said the measure asked others to break the law.

Instead, he urged the sponsors to withdraw the bill and lobby Congress to change federal policy.

‘‘I will not, with my vote, put [officials] in harm’s way by telling them to break the law,” said Subin (D-At large) of Gaithersburg.

Council President Thomas E. Perez, who has been fighting for a system to import drugs from Canada for two years, said experts disagreed on the legality of the proposal.

‘‘If a court opinion says it’s illegal, I will absolutely agree with Mr. Subin,” said Perez (D-Dist. 5) of Takoma Park.

The council’s action comes about two weeks after the Montgomery County Board of Education backed away from the multi-agency effort to establish drug importation for government employees. Instead, the board wanted the county to take the first step, which the bill provides.

Seven council members — all but Subin and Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown — sponsored the bill.

In an interview, Knapp said he opposed the bill because of the legal concerns, because he doubted the county would save any money, and because he questioned the safety of drugs coming in from out of the country.

‘‘We have no safety mechanisms in place and I don’t think we can put county employees at risk,” he said.

If the council had followed its own timetable, the county would have had the program in place at least three months ago. Negotiations were delayed as savings had to be recalculated because of the falling dollar.

Policies supporting Canadian drug importation are already a part of negotiated agreements with county government employee unions.

The bill would cover about 8,000 county employees and 4,500 retirees and their dependents. Perez said that once the county acted, other units of government, such as the school system and the Park and Planning Commission, would join.

Canadian drug purchases would be voluntary. If employees used Canusa, the county would benefit from the cheaper drug prices; the employees would benefit because the county would not charge a co-payment.

Prescriptions in Canada face government-imposed price controls, which could mean millions in savings for the county government. A council study estimated savings at $15 million to $20 million a year.

For a time, Perez had wanted the program to be offered to all county residents. He said Tuesday he still hoped to offer that benefit.

A hearing has been scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Nov. 1, in the Council Office Building in Rockville. A vote is tentatively scheduled for the following week. As an expedited bill, it can take effect when it is signed, which should take no more than 10 days.

With seven sponsors, the bill could survive a veto from Duncan. Although Duncan has professed support for the concept of importing prescriptions from Canada, he has said he would oppose any measure that would break the law.

At a Tuesday news conference, Perez conceded the point of some critics that the savings would be far less.

‘‘But people who are cavalierly willing to let a couple of million bucks on the table, that makes me think we need to audit their budgets,” he said.

Staff Writer Janel Davis contributed to this report.